This is the second of a two-part article written for the 67th Wildlife Week celebration of BRT Tiger Reserve, tracing the history of the land, the people and the forests. Read Part 1 here.
During my years in medical college at Mysore in the late 1990s, a (then) popular book by the Anglo-Indian naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee (EP Gee) was titled ‘Wildlife of India’. An early contributor to post-independence wildlife conservation in India, he describes in this book his first stop-over at BR Hills, in his journey across Indian forests. He drove here to meet Morris, at his bungalow hidden away in the folds of the BR Hills shola forest and coffee estates mosaic at Honnametti. EP Gee’s book, with a foreword by the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, is known to have influenced an entire generation of wildlife conservationists. Much earlier, BR Hills entered global wildlife and natural-history chronicles in the late 19th century, when the British naturalist George P Sanderson, who worked in the colonial public works department, arrived at what he called ‘Morlay’. Sanderson’s Morlay was the outskirts of today’s Chamarajanagara Town. Standing there today, one can see the peaks Jadeyana Betta and Yediyalli Betta, which lie near Kyathadevara Gudi (K Gudi); K Gudi is a popular tourist destination which houses an elephant camp, an old guest house now renovated and maintained by the Karnataka Forest Department, and Jungle Lodges & Resorts, which stands at the site of the hunting lodge of the then Maharaja of Mysore. In fact, the Pride of India (Lagerstomia speciosa) tree that stands tall even to this day outside K Gudi is supposed to have been planted by the then prince of Mysore.
The systematic searching of early documents by Santosh Kumar, currently the field director of BRT Tiger Reserve, reveal that the Mysore kingdom was commissioning a road connecting Jothigaudanapura to the Punjur-Bedaguli road in 1897, for the purposes of transporting timber, primarily Teak (Tectona grandis), Matti (Terminalia spp.), Honne (Pterocarpus) and Beete (Dalbergia). Sanderson’s task at hand was to also capture elephants. This was both for the purposes of domesticating them as well as for protecting several farmers who had begun complaining about crop raids. The contested human-elephant interface has had a long history ever since the expansion of agriculture into forested areas.
Sanderson’s legacy today is his “discovery” of the ‘kheddah’ system of capturing wild elephants, which made him set up an elephant-catching establishment/department within the colonial administration at Bengal’s Chittagong hill tracts, where he is supposed to have put his experience gained in Mysore and BR Hills into practice. Some of his early experiments and perfection of the technique happened around the Boodipadaga area at the south eastern foothills of BR Hills. Colonial legacies often overstate realities, identifying a single white man with achievements; it is unlikely that his technique was entirely an idea of his own. Leveraging tacit knowledge from the experience and wisdom of several unnamed Solega inhabitants likely gave form to his ideas, which of course he elegantly captured in one of his books, ‘Thirteen years among wild beasts of India’ published in 1879. Indeed, it has been suggested that Rudyard Kipling fashioned Jungle Book’s character Petersen Sahib — “the man who caught all the elephants for the Government of India” — after him. Sanderson’s death at the age of 40 from pulmonary tuberculosis was not uncommon at the time even amongst privileged colonialists, and gives us an insight into the possibly even more devastating effects it might have then had on the more socio-economically deprived communities around him. A life cut short by tuberculosis, his gravestone today inconspicuously merges with the landscape at the outskirts of Chamarajanagara Town.
Sanderson’s assessment of the health around Chamarajangar is staggering. He says “Morlay is not however a healthy place, and my people and myself have suffered from fever at various times….during our second year, we lost about 200 per mille (per thousand) per annum among servants (sic), which is about five times the death rate in England”. Reading his books prompted wildlife photographer Kalyan Varma on an expedition to villages outside Chamarajanagara Town in 2012, to find the place of his burial and possible memorialisation of his presence. A tombstone has survived the times, and according to Kalyan, there were efforts from Sanderson’s family in the UK to restore the location. It turns out that Sanderson’s Morlay is a corruption of Doddamolay village, where his grave overlooks the same large water-body that he then described as being contiguous with the forests at the foothills of BR Hills, with views of K Gudi forests from below. Today’s forest boundary has shifted quite some distance from this location, and cattle and farms take the place of elephants and deer.
The story of colonial overlords bringing new diseases into faraway and remote areas is much better documented in ‘New World’, where this relationship between the natives and the settlers was stark and contested. Jared Diamond’s book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ is a fascinating read on how disease-carrying germs and pathogens might have been stowaways with colonial armies, and brought as much devastation as the colonial enterprise itself. Some of Sanderson’s descriptions of Chamarajanagara as well as British gazetteer documentations of deaths from the flu pandemic in the early part of the 20th century give a local facet to this global narrative.
Post-independence science and conservation
Post-independence marked the reclaiming of forests and their administration by the Indian State. After the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) came into force, BR Hills gradually went from being a reserve forest to a wildlife sanctuary, to finally in 2011, being notified as a tiger reserve. Perhaps one of the first well-documented expeditions to catalogue its flora and fauna was undertaken by Dr. Salim Ali, as part of the ‘Birds of Mysore Survey’ (November 1939 to February 1940). Ali, independent India’s first well-known ornithologist, visited over 75 locations spread across nine districts in Karnataka and three districts in Tamil Nadu, including multiple locations in BR Hills. The Mysore Bird Survey possibly redefined the ornithology of the then Princely State of Mysore (today’s southern Karnataka). A fitting tribute to this effort was spearheaded by entomologist and ornithologist S Subramanya, when he surveyed locations on the same dates as Ali’s team, and visited the very same localities after 78 years, for an assessment of changes in habitat conditions and consequent bird patterns. I was fortunate to join this team tracing Salim Ali’s footsteps in the BR Hills leg of the survey along with L Shyamal, Samira Agnihotri and S Subramanya, leading to a fascinating peek into the birdlife of BR Hills.
In 1997, S Karthikeyan and JN Prasad conducted a faunal survey of BR Hills, where they documented the birds as well as various mammals in the hills. Extensive work on bird vocalisations by Samira Agnihotri and her Solega collaborators continues, particularly focusing on the spectacular Racket-tailed Drongo, whose veritable mimicry of other bird calls is a window into vocalisations and social behaviour amongst birds. Outside of birds, the naming of a frog – Microhyla sholigari – that was collected at few locations in BR Hills, after the Solega people, was also an interesting development. At the time of description, this Microhylid frog was thought to be a rare frog limited only to BR Hills, but careful and extensive documentation of many Microhyla frogs by ecologists have shown them to be much more widespread. Nonetheless, the species name commemorating the Solega people, who possibly knew of the frog much before it was described in English for posterity, continues to be apt.
The Kollegal Ground Gecko (Cyrtodactylus collegalensis), variously called Leopard Gecko and Spotted Gecko, another reptile that is named after parts of forests occurring in BR Hills, is possibly more extensive in peninsular India. Described in 1870 by Richard Henry Beddomme, a British military officer and naturalist, based on just one specimen collected in BR Hills, very little was known about its distribution and taxonomy until recently. Some interesting discoveries, more recently in 2009, were when along with several other colleagues, we reported the occurrence of the Madras Tree Shrew (Anathana ellioti) from multiple locations in BR Hills. There have been several sightings of this species and interesting interactions of this species with Jungle Babblers, which were recently documented. Interestingly, such mixed foraging associations between tree shrews and birds have also been described from other parts, including in S Karthikeyan’s work on tree shrews from Yercaud in Tamil Nadu, and Meera Anna Oommen and Karthik Shanker’s fascinating research on the interactions between tree shrews and Racket-tailed Drongos and Sparrowhawks in Great Nicobar Island. When we first recorded the Madras Tree Shrew in BR Hills, it was the first report of its occurrence from Karnataka, although such administrative boundaries are drawn over otherwise contiguous ecological boundaries.
The curious case of absent (or visiting?) Great Hornbills
Perhaps the most intriguing bio-geo-historical puzzle that I grappled with about BR Hills had to do with the mixed Western and Eastern Ghats avifauna at BR Hills. During my stint as a doctor there in the early 2000s, I was joined by fellow doctor-birder Umesh Srinivasan (now an ecologist at the Indian Institute of Science) in our quest to understand the apparent lack of some wet-zone Western Ghats species. We examined the current bird occurrence patterns in BR Hills in relation to known theories of how avifauna might have dispersed and/or locally speciated within peninsular India. In the process of researching this, we read several fascinating theories in the domains of biogeography and speciation. These theories proposed hypothetical pathways for the floral and faunal dispersal across the Indian plate since its collision and tussle with the Asian plate.
Our work at the time as amateur-birders possibly fed into multiple other on-going inquiries into bio-geographical aspects across specific barriers. A much deeper and extensive scientific inquiry into avifaunal patterns in relation to bio-geographical barriers is pursued today by ‘Sky Island Lab’. Along with the birds that were found, we were particularly interested in birds that were not found here, especially the wet-zone hornbills. To our pleasant surprise recently, Samira Agnihotri and her collaborators reported Great Hornbill sightings in the southern slopes of BR Hills. In her words, “those blue hills are not too far as the hornbill flies”. Although not frequent or widespread, visiting Great Hornbills and their possible breeding at these hills further deepens the need for us to understand historical sources and current ecological changes. Great Hornbills, for those who have seen them, are unmistakable. Although Samira traces a local Solega name for this species through her interactions, extensive natural-history publications by Morris do not mention its occurrence here. Could these hornbills be relatively recent visitors or is there a historic but infrequently used flyway that has always existed? These are some questions that can only be answered through careful observation and partnerships with local communities. The shared floral elements between core Western Ghats and the Eastern Ghats, and a mosaic pattern of flora and fauna elements between these two ecological zones indicates the wider historical and ecological importance of BR Hills.
Tiger haven and rightfully so
As the recent history of BR Hills shows, colonial scientists and writers are now replaced by more Indian and local icons. This can only bear well for Indian science and wildlife conservation. Yet, there is still a wide gap in terms of partnering respectfully and more closely with local communities. For decades after independence too, wildlife conservation had tended to be heavily borrowing from the colonial enterprise and had been criticised as being rather exclusive of local communities. In that background, the passing of the Forest Rights Act in 2006 sought to mitigate this historical injustice. BR Hills in recent history has also made news for its pioneering efforts at securing forest rights much earlier than in many other locations. Efforts by the Solega leadership, coupled with long relationships with civil society and the forest department and administration, enabled a slow but steady process of providing forest rights that the Solega were entitled to. The role of an educated and empowered Solega youth in this enterprise, including people such as C Made Gowda, a researcher and a Solega leader, and M Jade Gowda, a professor of forestry, has been extensively documented. Other icons include Jallesiddamma (a Rajyotsava awardee who lived in Yerakanagadde podu) – as wonderful a naturalist as a midwife, who taught me so much about the wildlife lore of the Solega; and so many other women who’ve stood strong through various struggles. In the last decade, many of the Solega podus (settlements) have been investing in forming forest rights committees, which seek to be the torch-bearers of community engaged conservation in the years to come. When researchers from ATREE partnered with local communities to create maps of their social and cultural sites, it was indeed a way of reinstating the historical relationship between the people and their forests. As a community that has lived through these historical eras that we trace above, it is perhaps impossible to conceptualise the history of these hills and forests without viewing aspects of these through their lore, lens and world-views.
As we celebrate this year’s wildlife week, let us also celebrate the importance of oral history and local traditions, along with formal knowledge and scholarship, which together help us protect and preserve the socio-ecological heritage of places like BR Hills.